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Specific Heat of Water & Metals: Physics Lab

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  • 0:01 What Is Specific Heat
  • 0:40 Physics Lab Steps
  • 2:30 Data Analysis
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

This lab will help you to be able to explain what specific heat is and find the specific heat of a metal using household objects. After completing the lab and analyzing the data, you can complete a short quiz to test your knowledge.

What is Specific Heat?

The specific heat, or more fully, the specific heat capacity, is a measure of how much energy it takes to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of a substance by 1 degree Celsius (or Kelvin). For example, 4,187 is the specific heat capacity of liquid water, and this means that it takes 4,187 Joules of energy to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree. Solid ice, despite being made of the same material, has a smaller specific heat capacity of just 2,090 Joules per kilogram per Kelvin. So the state of a substance also matters.

Today, we're going to investigate specific heat capacity by doing an experiment to calculate the specific heat capacity of a metal.

Physics Lab Steps

For this physics lab, you will need:

  • A saucepan, or something you can put on a stovetop
  • A stove, or other heater like a Bunsen burner
  • A rod of metal (a good solid sample of metal is better than a tiny piece)
  • A thermometer
  • A Styrofoam cup or other highly insulated cup with a lid (you can cut a lid from a separate piece of foam)
  • Extra insulation for the outside of the cup (the better insulated the cup, the better your data will be)
  • A scale
  • Water
  • Tongs or something you can use to safely grab a very hot object

Step 1: Using the scale, take some mass measurements. Measure the mass of the metal. Measure the mass of your cup. After filling the cup with water, measure the new mass. Subtract this new mass from the original mass of the cup to figure out the mass of the water.

Step 2: Make sure any insulation for the cup is fully set up and ready to go.

Step 3: Put some water into a saucepan (this is separate to the water in the cup). Add the piece of metal, and heat it up on the stove or over a Bunsen burner.

Step 4: Once the water is boiling, the metal will be at 100 degrees C. For extra accuracy, check the exact temperature with the thermometer and note it down.

Step 5: Use the tongs, take the metal out of the boiling water, and place it in the colder water inside your insulated cup. Close the lid.

Step 6: After a short wait, put the thermometer in the water. The best way to do this is to punch it through a hole in the lid, because less heat will escape that way. Watch the temperature on the thermometer. After a time of increasing, it should eventually slow and level off. Once it's stopped rising, note down the final temperature. (It will eventually start going back down again, so try to catch the highest value it reached.)

If you haven't already, now it's time to pause the video and get started. Good luck!

Data Analysis

Now let's analyze your data. In this experiment, the heat from the metal was transferred into the colder water. Eventually, they reached an equilibrium temperature - an equal temperature in between the two starting temperatures. This was your final temperature reading.

We can use this data, along with an equation, to figure out the heat capacity of the metal. The equation looks like this:

Specific Heat
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The heat added to the water is equal to the heat removed from the metal. And the equation for the heat transferred in a temperature change is mc-delta-T, where m is the mass of the substance, c is the heat capacity of the substance, and delta-T is the change in temperature. So the mass of the water, times the heat capacity of water, times the change in temperature of water, is equal to the mass of the metal, times the heat capacity of metal, times the change in temperature of metal. It turns out, we know most of these values from our experiment.

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